A federal judge Monday ordered Maryland officials to further scrutinize the potential impact of Metro's declining ridership on the future Purple Line, further delaying construction of the light-rail project in the Washington suburbs and jeopardizing its chances to secure critical federal funding.

The ruling means major construction on the 16-mile line connecting Montgomery and Prince George's counties remains on hold until a federal lawsuit filed by Purple Line opponents is resolved. Construction already has been delayed seven months because of the lawsuit.

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The decision by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon also greatly jeopardizes the project's chances at $900 million in federal construction grants and threatens a $5.6 billion public-private partnership.

Maryland officials have said that without a "foreseeable path" to resolving the lawsuit by June 1, they would have to suspend much or all of the rail line's planning and design work because state money would run out. The state would then have about 60 days before it would have to cancel the project and back out of the public-private partnership — a move that could cost it more than $800 million in sunk costs and contract termination fees, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said in a recent court filing.

Gov. Larry Hogan called the ruling "incredibly disappointing, but not entirely surprising." Hogan has criticized Leon, saying the judge was delaying the case because of a conflict of interest that biased him against the light-rail project.

"The fact that it took a federal judge this long to reach the conclusion that more study is needed is completely baffling and, if allowed to stand, will cause irreparable harm to this vital project and cost the state hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars," the Republican governor said in a statement.

The statement did not address a June 1 deadline, saying only, "The state will continue to pursue any and all legal action to ensure that the Purple Line will move forward."

Asked whether they would appeal the decision, representatives of the Maryland attorney general's office and the Justice Department said only that they were reviewing the decision. The Federal Transit Administration referred all questions to the Justice Department.

Purple Line Transit Partners — the team of private companies contracted to help finance the line, build it and operate it over 36 years — did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Leon said Maryland and federal transit officials must redo the Purple Line's ridership forecasts because they hadn't taken "the requisite 'hard look' at the potential impact that [Metro's] ridership and safety issues could have on the Purple Line project."

Leon said the government's dismissive treatment of Metro's potential effects was "arbitrary and capricious" and ordered the agencies to update the ridership study "as expeditiously as possible."

Maryland officials have said reopening the study could take months, and every month of delay costs the state more than $13 million.

The decision is a major victory for Purple Line opponents, including two Chevy Chase residents and a trail advocacy group that filed the federal lawsuit in 2014 seeking to block the project on environmental grounds.

John M. Fitzgerald, an environmental lawyer and plaintiff in the case, called the ruling "a victory of substantive analysis over agency arrogance."

He said further study might find an east-west transportation project that is "more effective, less expensive and less harmful" or perhaps persuade Maryland officials to spend more to rehabilitate Metro rather than build the Purple Line.

The ruling comes at a precarious time for the rail project because Maryland officials have said they need the federal grants to cover nearly half of the line's $2 billion construction cost.

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Congress has appropriated $325 million toward the Purple Line. However, Maryland officials can't access that money unless Leon or another judge reinstates the project's federal environmental approval, which Leon revoked in August.

The project also would need a federal funding agreement, and it's unclear whether the Trump administration will sign new ones.

The Purple Line was five days away from securing such an agreement when Leon's earlier ruling made it ineligible.

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